Daniel Plonsey: inspired by his (math) students

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Daniel Plonsey, Berkeley High teacher, prolific musician, presents a new project on Sunday in Berkeley based on his students’ work

By day, Daniel Plonsey teaches geometry and calculus at Berkeley High. By night he’s a prolific saxophonist and composer who’s crafted a vast and variegated body of work that includes a jazz opera with the late underground comic icon Harvey Pekar, a madcap performance piece commissioned by the Jewish Music Festival, Daniel Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah, and the expansive series for his ensemble Daniel Popsicle, Music of El Cerrito.

His two worlds rarely come into contact, but, on Sunday afternoon at the Starry Plough, Plonsey premieres a new project called Student Work, featuring tunes inspired by stories culled from student writing assignments. In some cases, he set their sentences to music, songs that he’ll deliver accompanied by his orchestral 12-piece band (Daniel Popsicle returns to the Plough on June 2 and July 7 for extra-credit Student Work performances).

Like many of Plonsey’s projects, Student Work emerged out of his daily routine, when he happened to pick up a pile of homework and was struck by the “telegraphic syntax of the writing, more like poetry than prose,” he says. “I just started reading them and it occurred to me that it would be fun to set to music.”

The stories were in response to an assignment he gives at the start of every school year, asking students to write a paragraph or two about their experiences with math. The idea is to give him a sense of where his students are coming from, but since he reads the pieces before experiencing the students in class, revisiting them months later proved far more informative.


“There were kids who were pessimistic about their chances and who were doing pretty well,” Plonsey says. “Other kids who talked about not doing their homework, and here they were again not doing their homework. So the self-recognition wasn’t necessarily paying off.”

He notes that Sunday’s concert comes days before the Advanced Placement test for calculus, and the band is offering free math tutoring from 4-5 pm before the show (Daniel Popsicle’s Juilliard-trained violinist, Masha Albrecht, is also a Berkeley High math instructor). For the less mathematically ambitious, Plonsey is bringing in some geometry and algebra problems for general discussion.

If turning homework into performance pieces seems to raise questions of privacy, Plonsey points out that no students are identified by name. For teachers “student work” is a term of art that refers to evaluating assignments and test results to calibrate pedagogy. He didn’t go back to students to

“The students don’t know about it because it’s not about them as individual authors,” Plonsey says. “We frequently get together with colleagues and pull out a bunch of student answers to an assignment and go through them without regards to who wrote it. It’s about us as educators trying to get better at educating them. I want the audience to get the range of emotions students bring to a class.”

Plonsey’s music seems to flow directly from his persona, a beguiling mix of sardonic humor, earnest dedication, and quixotic commitment to infusing neighborhood undertakings with avant-garde aesthetics. As a bandleader he gives musicians tremendous latitude with episodes of free improvisation, but he also writes closely notated through-composed pieces.


Most impressively, Plonsey possesses a seemingly bottomless well of enticing melodies, which often emerge from thick, even chaotic ensemble passages.  Inspired by Bollywood soundtracks from the 1960s and ‘70s, his music is full of higgledy-piggledy motion with various styles and strategies unselfconsciously bumping up against each other.

“Those Bollywood scores are really appealing,” Plonsey says. “There are often these vocals and then suddenly these weird instrumental breaks. I wanted to do something like that. I know the balance between instrumentals and vocals in American pop music pretty well. These Bollywood scores have a whole different point of view. The instruments are almost a stern commentary, or sympathetic commentary, with breaks that are much longer and shorter than you’d expect. It’s a surreal take on music in some ways, and I wanted my audience to experience that.”

Many of the Daniel Popsicle musicians are longtime Plonsey collaborators, and it’s a testament to his consistently engaging music that his band features accomplished players such as reed expert Cory Wright, guitarist John Shiurba, cellist Myra Chachkin, and drummer Suki O’Kane. A creative force in her own right, O’Kane has taken a leading role in producing the Student Work performances, the latest in a decade-long series of audacious creative pursuits into which she and Plonsey have goaded each other.

“He got me to do crazy things, and it was time for me to get the upper hand again,” says the Oakland drummer. “When I was working at Museum of Children’s Art I asked him to write a piece that people can color to. Of course he’s so prolific he came back with 20 pieces, and in the end Color Music ended up with 99 pieces with titles like ‘Clown Yellow.’”

Recommended gig:

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Rahim AlHaj. Photo: Douglas Kent Hall

Since fleeing his native Iraq in 1991 with Saddam Hussein’s henchmen hot on his trail, Rahim AlHaj has sought to give voice to the plight of the Iraqi people. The fact that his prime vehicle for communication is the oud, the six-string Middle Eastern lute, has presented tremendous challenges and opportunities for the conservatory-trained composer.


Instead of waiting for audiences to come to him, AlHaj has sought out listeners by collaborating with jazz musicians such as guitarist Bill Frisell and Indian sarod master Amjad Ali Khan. At his solo recitals, like Saturday’s performance at Freight & Salvage, he focuses on his original compositions, pointilistic soundscapes designed to capture specific locations, moods and situations. Each piece is built on a traditional maqam, or scale, from the venerable Iraqi oud tradition, but AlHaj takes great liberties with rhythm and tempo.

“Each maqam has its own concept and spirit that I choose according to the story I want to tell,” says AlHaj, now an American citizen based in Albuquerque.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

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